Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I recall that this book was recommended to me by a few different sources, which is how it ended up on my ever-lengthening reading list. It rose to the top, however, when my brother read it and praised it. Since he has good taste (except for that Dirk Pitt thing), I figured I had to read it. 

The Boys In The Boat is mostly about the nine American rowers, from the University of Washington, who won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But it is also about one of the rowers in particular, Joe Rantz, who had a backstory that really did need to be made into a book. His rise from poverty and abandonment to become one of the most famous athletes of his time is a great story. The author interviewed Joe extensively before his death, as well as one of his daughters, who had absorbed the old stories and could recount her father’s words. 

While the story focuses on Joe, there are other memorable characters. The other “boys in the boat,” most of whom came from similarly impoverished backgrounds, are given a bit of time in the book. Other rowers from other schools and nations get mentions to the extent that they are interesting, and the history of competitive rowing itself is told briefly as needed. In addition, the rivalry of the great rowing coaches, Al Ulbrickson of Washington, and Ky Ebright of Cal, is a crucial part of the story, as is the genius of George Pocock, arguably the best maker of rowing shells of all time. 

Of necessity, the book also addresses the rise of Hitler, and the massive propaganda machine that was created to whitewash the Nazi experience for the benefit of the rest of the world. The book specifically looks at the role of actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and her propaganda film of the Games. And also a good bit at Goebbels, of course. In 1936, the elimination of Jews was already starting, but this fact was carefully hidden behind the glossy facade. Within a few years, of course, the world would be on fire again, and Hitler’s atrocities would be laid bare before the world. 

Before reading this book, I will admit I was pretty ignorant of rowing. Other than, I guess, the fact that I own a kayak, and can paddle well enough to get around. But rowing as a sport is a good bit different. Particularly eight man crew, which involves perfect timing and technique, a coxswain to steer and keep time, and a 62 foot long boat. The speeds are pretty insane too, and watching a race is pretty exciting. Fortunately, the author assumes the reader needs a bit of a primer, and subtly works information into the book as needed. This is completely unobtrusive, and well explained. 

The story of Joe Rantz would make a book in itself. Joe was the younger of two sons, with a significant age gap between him and his brother. When he was four, his mother died. After living with an aunt for a while, then with his older brother, he returned to live with his father...and wicked stepmother. Actually, that is a whole can of worms right there. Soon after Joe’s older brother married one of a pair of twins, Joe’s dad married the other. Awkward. Stepmom Thula hated Joe, and kicked him out of the house at age 10. Literally. He had to beg his food and fend for himself. From age 14 on, Joe lived in an old house his dad abandoned, and supported himself through school. All while his dad, stepmom, and their kids were living across Puget Sound and ignoring him. 

Joe eventually had the chance to pay his way through University of Washington. He tried out for Crew in order to earn some scholarship money, and went on to become one of the best rowers Ulbrickson had seen. By his side through much of this was his eventual wife Joyce, who herself came from poverty and a dysfunctional family. They would be a source of stability and love for each other for over 60 years. 

Of necessity, the book recounts a number of important races over the course of three years. Fortunately, the author does an outstanding job of pacing the book and filling in other details so that it never gets monotonous. A race will be followed by a section on Nazi Germany, followed by a bit on one of the rowers, or the boat, or other interesting related topics. 

Rowing is one of those sports which has historically been an upper-class thing. Which is weird because it started (in its modern form) with Thames boatmen. However, the Etonian sorts took it over, and by the 1930s, it was mostly an Ivy League thing. But that was already starting to change. The West Coast rowers were either a mix of classes (in the case of Cal) or overwhelmingly blue collar (in the case of Washington), and they were starting a run of dominance over their East Coast rivals. This didn’t sit well with the Ivy Leaguers, and this came to a head right before the 1936 Olympics. Washington won the trials, which meant it had the right to represent the US in Berlin. However, due to the Depression, funds were short to assist with travel expenses. The runner up, the Pennsylvania Athletic Club, had plenty of cash. And a bigwig with them also sat on the US Olympic committee. Which announced after the race that the Washington crew would have to pay their own way. But, if they were too poor, then Penn could take their place…

It is inspiring that the $5000.00 in necessary funds was raised by mostly small donors back in Washington, allowing the boys to go. 

Another inspiring scene occurred when the Americans sang “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here” out of time with the Nazi marching during the opening parade. It was just one example of subtle pushback by the American athletes (including the legendary Jessie Owens) during the games. Within a few years, an army of the same sort of young American men would be marching into Berlin under very different circumstances. 

The race itself was thrilling. The Americans faced several seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their “stroke oar,” Don Hume, was suffering from a severe case of pneumonia, bad enough that he was confined to bed for the week before, and passed out at the end of the first trial run. He was nearly non-responsive at the start of the gold medal race, and failed to respond to Moch’s instructions during - although he rowed by instinct. Finally, something snapped, and Moch was able to drag him along by eye contact. 

The other issue was every bit as serious. The course had six lanes, and they were nowhere near equal in difficulty. The inner two were calm and sheltered. The outer two were subject to wind and currents. Ulbrickson calculated that the advantage was about two boat lengths - a huge amount of difference. Through an opaque process which still has not been adequately explained, the German and Italian boats were assigned to the best lanes, while the Brits and Americans were given the worst. Particularly the Americans. 

So, in order to win the race - by a very fine margin - the Americans had to overcome a 2 length disadvantage AND do it with a gravely ill oarsman. And yet they did. That’s the quintessential American mythology, though, right? Blue collar boys fend of the trust fund babies, overcome huge obstacles, and shove it in Hitler’s face? Oh so very much yes. 

It was also kind of interesting what happened to the boys afterward. The 1930s were essentially the dawn of a new age in America, with the New Deal, affordable education, an explosion of technology, and rapid social mobility for some. (If you were white.) The blue collar boys in the book made good. Joe would study hard and get his degree in engineering, and then work for Boeing the rest of his career. Others would opt for medicine or law or business. With the exception of one who died early of lung cancer, they would live long and prosperous lives. And, in some cases, be instrumental in the cause of the war. Not in combat, though. Ironically, they were too big. Rowers even in the 1930s were over six feet - often by a good margin - and wouldn’t qualify for military service as a result. By the time the war broke out, most had degrees in areas that were needed on the homefront - particularly the engineers. Rantz and others would design and build aircraft and vehicles, for example. 

One exception to the height was Bobby Moch, the coxswain. He had to be short and small to get the job. A picture of the crew is amusing, because there are eight giants...and one tiny shrimp. (Moch was my size, so I get to tease a bit.) 

Moch would make good himself, leveraging a coaching job for MIT into admission to Harvard Law School. Moch did a good bit of appellate work, arguing and winning a case in front of the US Supreme Court. I tried to find the case, but was unable to in a reasonable amount of time. I could probably go borrow the Lexis account at the local law library, I guess. I did, however, find his name as counsel on a few US Court of Appeals cases. Hey, a short badass lawyer. Got to love that. Also, Moch found out from his parents just before leaving for Berlin that he was Jewish, and that his family had hidden that fact due to rampant antisemitism both in Germany and in the United States. Judging from the way the race went down (and Moch’s subsequent career), he had ice running through his veins. 

One final tidbit which I thought was interesting. The book takes a bit of a detour to mention two of the British rowing crew. The coxswain, Noel Duckworth, was another tiny badass. He would win honors in the war, due to his time as a POW, during which he saved quite a few lives. Oh, and he wasn’t a soldier - he was a chaplain who went along with the prisoners so they wouldn’t be shot. The other English rower was Ran Laurie, who was the father of Hugh Laurie. Which was kind of a cool connection. 

The Boys In The Boat is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Brown clearly spent hours interviewing dozens of people, and going through the correspondence between Joe Rantz and Joyce, which contained a lot of good information. Coming on the heels of our own visit to the Seattle area, I was able to envision where much of the story took place, although obviously things look a bit different now. The writing is excellent, particularly in the way it takes an arcane topic and makes it not just understandable, but compelling. Brown also centers the story in history: the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Dust Bowl, and the rapid westward shift of the center of American life. 


In the 1930s, rowing was a male domain. But now, women compete as well. Here is an exciting race from 2012. Not particularly the body language at the end. Six plus minutes of full body exertion takes it all out of them by the end. Insanely difficult work. 

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